Gulf sturgeon spawn on portions of three sites in the upper Suwannee River, which may appropriately be described as spawning reefs. The same areas are utilized from year to year. Habitat factors important in spawning site determination include gravel/cobble substrate, the presence of eddy fields, a neutral to slightly alkaline pH, and an empirically observed range in calcium ion content (6-18 mg/L Ca++, corresponding to a conductivity range of 40-110??S). Eggs are deposited contagiously within a small area (< 10,000 m2) with very little scatter, suggesting little if any current drift. They are not found from samplers on immediately adjacent sand substrate. The broadcast spawner model does not seem to fit the Gulf sturgeon. Spawning begins 4-7 days after the March new moon, with water temperature above 17.0 oC, and extends for 9-23 days as discrete events involving individual females. Spawning may continue, if water temperature remains below 21-22oC. The total annual pool of spawning females in the Suwannee population is estimated at 80 individuals. Young of the year utilize open sand habitat away from shoreline and vegetated habitat. They disperse widely, and occur over freshwater reaches from rkm 10-237; no particular affinity with spring water habitat is evident. Larger Gulf sturgeon tend to congregate in deep holes serving as summer-fall holding areas. They fast and lose weight while remaining in freshwater, but more than compensate this loss during winter feeding in marine waters. The major downriver migration to the estuary takes place in October-November. After a period of river mouth staging, subadults and adults migrate into Gulf of Mexico nearshore mesohaline waters. They move further out and into deeper water (> 3 m) when water temperatures drop in mid-December, but final destinations in mid-winter remain unknown. Age-2 through 6 juveniles remain in the river mouth estuary over winter. In late January through early February YOY migrate downriver for the first time, joining larger juveniles to overwinter and feed. Tag and recapture data yield a Suwannee River population of Gulf sturgeon estimated at 7,650 individuals, with an annual turnover rate of 16%. Based on stability in cumulative recapture rates from 1991-1998, population size is stable with an effective balance between recruitment and mortality. However, population structure is dynamic, controlled by the juxtaposition, conjunction, and summation of successive strong and weak year classes. Length/age frequency distributions for 1995 and 1998 populations censuses are very different. The 1995 distribution is bimodal with a dominant mode of 9-14 year old subadults/adults, and a sub-dominant of mode of 2-4 year old juveniles. The 1998 distribution is trimodal, but overwhelmingly dominated by 6-9 year old subadults. Erosion by 1998 of the major subadult/adult mode from the 1995 census illustrates that large adults encounter the same high mortality as smaller fish. Ultimate adult size in the population has remained constant at 2.2 cm TL over 13 years, indicating a maximum life expectancy of 25 years for Suwannee River Gulf sturgeon.
Additional publication details
Recent advances in life history of Gulf of Mexico sturgeon, Acipenser oxyrinchus desotoi, in the Suwannee River, Florida, USA: A synopsis